Entering the week, six of college basketball’s seven “major” conferences had a clear-cut favorite to win their league. The exception was the Big Ten, which featured a tight five-team race to win the regular-season title, according to Caesars Sportsbook. No. 17 Illinois was the favorite at +240. But after the Illini’s double-overtime loss to No. 4 Purdue on Monday, things are even muddier at the top of Big Ten standings. In short, it’s the nation’s most wide open conference at the top by a wide margin.
Illinois, Purdue, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 14 Michigan State and potentially even No. 19 Ohio State look capable of winning the title. But getting through the league is not easy. Beyond the pack of front-runners is a chase pack with the likes of Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Rutgers that are all talented enough to win on any given night.
Penn State and Northwestern are no pushovers, either, and Minnesota has also been more competitive than expected under first-year coach Ben Johnson. A Maryland team playing under an interim coach and lowly Nebraska are perhaps the only teams inspiring that look like “easy” wins at the moment.
So who is going to emerge from the fray as the Big Ten champion? Our experts give their picks for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff.
There are five Big Ten schools in my latest Top 25 And 1 updated rankings — Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois. I could theoretically see any of them winning the Big Ten, though I’m currently higher on the Badgers and Boilermakers than the other three. I like those two a lot. But if forced to pick just one, I guess I’d slightly lean toward Wisconsin, which is 5-1 in Quadrant 1 and 4-1 in Quadrant 3 through the first 16 games of this season. The Badgers’ nine victories in the first two quadrants are tops in the nation. Nobody has more Q1 wins. If I were assembling an NCAA Tournament bracket today, I’d have Greg Gard’s team as a No. 1 seed. And the fact that the Badgers have already won at Purdue suggests they’re built to deal with real challenges on the road because there is no bigger challenge in the Big Ten than playing at Purdue.
Will Wisconsin still be there in the end?
Man, who knows?
But what I do know is that Johnny Davis has gone from a three-star role player to a legitimate candidate for national player of the year, Brad Davison has gone from a somewhat controversial figure to a really good college basketball player, and Wisconsin is off to one of the best starts in the sport. In the preseason, I didn’t think the Badgers would be Big Ten contenders. But now I believe they can win it. — Gary Parrish
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Monday’s win at Illinois is why I’m going with the Boilers here. It got Matt Painter’s team to 4-2 in league play — but also knocked Illinois off the Big Ten mountain as the conference’s final team without a conference loss. There are five viable candidates for what we’re talking about here. Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State. One of those five teams will finish atop the Big Ten standings in the first week of March (and it’s reasonable to think multiple will tie for the best record). I am going with Purdue because Purdue is the best team with the highest ceiling and the scariest offense. Purdue’s offensive efficiency ranks No. 1 at KenPom.com and is No. 4 in 3-point accuracy, No. 9 in 2-point accuracy. No team has a better 1-2 big combo than 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and 6-10 Trevion Williams. Jaden Ivey serves up three-to-five plays a night that make you remember he’s got special potential as a pro. Then you take the coach into consideration. Matt Painter is the third-best coach at worst in this conference. Purdue’s going to win this league and be a No. 1 seed. — Matt Norlander
Because of a three-game suspension for Kofi Cockburn to begin the season, he and Andre Curbelo only played two games together before Curbelo left the lineup due to injury. With Curbelo finally back after missing extended time, the Illini have their starting point guard and star big man on the floor together to truly develop chemistry for the first time this season. The combo wasn’t good enough to carry Illinois to a victory on Monday in a double-overtime loss to Purdue. But as the Illini adjust to having Curbelo and Cockburn on the floor together, it should only make them better.
Illinois is now 6-1 in league play after Monday’s loss to Purdue, while the Boilermakers are 4-2. So even after that dramatic defeat, the Illini have a head start in the league race. With Alfonso Plummer, Jacob Grandison and Trent Frazier pouring in 3-pointers, the offense can be lethal from inside or out, and Curbelo’s ability to facilitate should eventually make it even better. The defense has shown promise, and has the potential to be great. There will be some bumps in the road, but expect this team to surge down the stretch and win the Big Ten. — David Cobb